Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hard Questions

One of the best ways to create a compelling case is to imagine, and answer before they are ever asked, the hardest questions that may be put to you on that particular topic. Since many institutions are trying to raise ever larger amounts for financial aid, let’s explore the hard questions associated with that topic to see if we’re prepared to answer them. Here’s a potential scenario:


What’s your top priority?


Financial aid.




So many families have been hard hit. They’ve seen their savings cut by at least a third and the value of their homes have declined by equal or greater amounts; both were primary vehicles for paying for their children’s education.


Then why did you raise tuition?


Well, it was our lowest increase in many years.


But why did you raise it at all?


Some of our costs continue to rise.


Why didn’t you just cut costs?


(If you can’t say you did cut costs in the past two years, your case is now substantially weakened; if you can you say, “We did,” the prospect might ask:)


What percent of the expense side of the base budget was cut? And what percent of the income side of the base budget did the tuition increases represent?


(If you didn’t cut as least as much as you raised through tuition increases your case is further weakened.)


Aren’t you creating the need for more financial aid every time you raise tuition?


Yes, but more of our budget is going for financial aid than ever before.


Where does the increased amount for financial aid come from?


(If you say “tuition, the prospect might ask:)


So you’re raising tuition to reallocate more to students with financial need? Wouldn’t it make more sense to hold the line on tuition by cutting the budget or even lowering tuition by cutting deeper?


(If you say the increased financial aid dollars are coming, “out of endowment,” the prospect might say:)


So, how long can you afford to do that? The value of your endowment declined in 2008 and you didn’t make up the difference in 2009 or 2010 (which is true in most cases). Is this the time to be eroding endowment even further?


(If you argue that tuition increases are essential to preserving quality as measured by faculty excellence, student-to-faculty ratios, curricular choices or first-rate facilities, the prospect might say:)


So you have no deadwood anywhere? No inefficient practices or systems? No duplication of effort? No bureaucratic inefficiencies? No chronically under-subscribed courses?


(If your institution hasn’t cut costs and your answer to all these questions is no answer of “no,” how do you then respond to these questions from the prospect?)


So if I give to financial aid, chances are it’s just a patch. I may help the school or some of the students with their present debt load but I’m not really making a long-term difference. Even if I give a substantial endowment for financial aid, chances are that the value of that endowment will be eroded by future tuition increases -- which seem inevitable. If I give current use dollars, I’m just eliminating or alleviating the burden of a few students. If the school doesn’t cut or contain costs for several years, I’m making no real difference. And, if people like me continue to give just to patch over the problem, does the school have any real incentive to cut or contain costs? It seems to me that if the school pledged to hold costs, maybe even cut them slowly but steadily over the next five years, you could make the case that my gifts to financial aid were closing the gap between need and ability to pay. Without that kind of commitment, giving just to stay even or to keep from losing even more ground isn’t appealing. I want to make a difference.

You see, then, why I say fundraising today must address the three Cs: cost, case and connection. If you aren’t containing costs, every case you make for private support is weakened. Philanthropy provides the margin of excellence; charity provides the margin for survival. People give far more to philanthropy than they do to charity. And, if you don’t have deep emotional ties to many prospects, you’d better have one helluva case. And, even if you do have lots of strong emotional ties to your prospects, you don’t want to weaken them by making a case that has too many holes in it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Awakening the Philanthropic Spirit

The inaugural issue of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Scan, launched by my partners at Academic Impressions offers some wonderful insights (my own notwithstanding) on “Translating a Positive Student Experience Into Lifetime Support for Your Institution.” I am glad to see increasing strategic emphasis on the design of the student experience and less on short-term fund raising tactics to build student and young alumni loyalty.

The link below will allow you to sign up for this valuable but free service.

I read this new publication right after I had finished a wonderful book entitled, Butler’s Big Dance: The Team, The Tournament, and Basketball Fever, by Susan S. Neville, which is about so much more than Butler’s ascent to the National Championship last year. It’s about how community finds a shape, and voice and a spiritual force field on a college campus through the exploits of earnest young athletes. In that book, there’s a vignette about one of the basketball players, Avery Jukes, who went to Uganda under the auspices of a University-sponsored program, witnessed the perilous lives of young people there, and, upon his return to Indianapolis, created a foundation which, in a month’s time, raised enough money to send five Ugandan children to school for year. The book quotes Jukes’ mother: “Before he went to Uganda,” she said, “it was all about Avery. And when he came back, I could tell in his voice that he was a different person.”

That got me thinking. Maybe it’s about something weightier than creating the conditions to induce or inspire young people to give back to their alma mater. Maybe the greater cause is awakening a larger, non-specific philanthropic spirit and purpose in our students. If, like Butler and many other colleges and universities, we give students the opportunity to see the disparities in the human condition and to reflect and their relative good fortune, we help them move from being unconscious acceptors of what they have been given to consciously grateful and then, perhaps, to conscientious givers. And what if we attempt to do more than make that opportunity available to some? What if we attempt to design it into the student experience and make it assertively available to all? Yes, I know, we must be careful not to preach but we certainly can come up with all sorts of creative and interesting ways to help our students see disparities and to understand where differences most need to be made. Through our own caring, our own example, our own journey -- whether we’re faculty, staff, parents, alumni, friends -- we can at least help them see for themselves and reflect on why they have been given more than others, and to ask themselves what is the highest and best use of those gifts. We can guide but we can’t push too hard or expect too much too soon.

And what if one college or university worked on that design and refined it over time? Would not the deeds of its charges accrue to its reputation? Would it not become known as a transformational place, as a well spring of conscientious giving? And wouldn’t that mere fact inspire many and cause some of philanthropic intent to support the source of such good in the world?

Do we spend too much time thinking about how we could raise more money and too little on the good that we could do? Does not the doing of good earn the admiration of others -- today, tomorrow and well into the future? And, in so doing, would we not stand a far better chance of securing far more support by thinking of what we could do for others than by asking how we could get others to do more for us?

What do you think? In the aforementioned book that’s not really about basketball, there’s a quote from As A Man Thinketh: “Men attract not that which they want, but that which they are.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Best People

The key to running a successful fund raising organization is making sure that your best people put your organization’s best proposals in front of your best prospects. Simple enough, right? Well, let’s see.

Let’s start with what it takes to recruit, retain and bring out the best in the best people in fund raising. What the best fund raisers want is to make a real and lasting difference in the human condition. Some believe that education is the best way while others look to medicine, early childhood development, the arts, environmental remediation, or a number of other worthy causes. I am reminded of this again and again, most recently during my trip to Indianapolis to deliver a keynote address for the good people that gather under the banner of CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) Indiana. It was immensely rewarding to interact with so many committed professionals in various areas of advancement. In the very best of them is a deep and driving desire to put their talents to their highest and best use, to somehow contribute to sustaining and strengthening the human family. That’s what gets them up in the morning, motivates them to work long hours, to sacrifice weekend and evening time with their loved ones, and to see their way past frustration.

The best fund raisers, therefore, want to help put those ideals in action; they want to broker philanthropic compacts between the high-minded doers in their organization and like-minded donors. They want to be able to put compelling proposals in front the most principled and practical philanthropists and say, “Do you see what we can achieve together?” They didn’t get into the business just to “make their numbers” or meet fund raising goals. They aren’t just in the business of chasing individual gifts but of securing and sustaining the support necessary to alleviate suffering, lift the human spirit, extend opportunity or provide liberty and justice to a greater segment of society.

The best fund raisers can’t achieve those purposes if their leaders aren’t asking themselves, “Who are we here to serve, and how can we do a better job of it?” Is it only in the context of honest self-assessment that true strategic planning can occur, that intentionality of purpose can be reviewed, revised and revived in light of emerging opportunities and obligations. Out of such an assessment will come a clearer picture of the gap between where an organization is and where it should be. It can then determine what it will take to get there, both by reallocating existing resources and securing new ones. It is then is in a position to explain to potential donors who will be better served, as well as how and when. The best people in fund raising will now have the best proposals to take forward. Two of the three conditions for optimal fund raising success have been met.

The best fund raisers know that they can’t just run out and ask the prospects for money no matter how strong their proposals. They know that the best prospects will make the largest gifts to the organizations that best align with their values, that have the clearest and most compelling plans, and that involve them in the planning and in the design of major initiatives, and that allow them to bring their talents to bear on the pursuit and completion of their goals. They know all of this takes time, that if they rush to the ask, they are likely to be told “no” or receive less support than the best prospects are capable of. They need the organizations they represent to respect their experience and trust their instincts. They need to be able to call on various people within the organization at various times, particularly the leaders to help the best prospects see the depth of commitment and talent, and to know who is charged with seeing the project through. They need to be a part of a culture of purpose, gratitude and accountability.

All too often the best fund raisers fall short of their potential because the organizations they represent instruct them to raise money to sustain internal functions or to placate internal stakeholders, not to achieve specific, service-oriented objectives, and to raise it as quickly as possible to meet the institutional metrical goals. All too often the best fund raisers leave or lose their animating ideals because they do feel as if their work is advancing a greater good or because the job is about what they must do to make their numbers, not what they can do to help their organization make a better world.

The best way to attract and retain the best people is to create the conditions that allow their best work; in turn they will help the organization create the conditions for more productive, predictable, sustainable philanthropic support.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

True Fund-Raising Professionals

In the past week I was afforded the privilege of providing the keynote address for the Hudson-Mohawk Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals on National Philanthropy Day. The occasion gave me the opportunity to spend time with the chapter’s fine leadership team and other true fund-raising professionals representing a variety of organizations and institutions. I call them true fund-raising professionals because they know:

Real fund raising doesn’t begin until you’re face-to-face with a prospect so they put themselves “out there,” or “on the road” sacrificing time with family and loved ones, not just to advance the interests of the organization they represent but to earn the trust, then the support, of their donors;

It takes time to earn the trust of others; that people don’t let go of large sums without deliberation and evidence of when, where and how their money can make a difference;

They have to listen before they ask because fund raising isn’t about getting what an institution wants but about achieving mutuality of purpose and common cause; that the animating passion of the American philanthropic institution is not “We the institution” but “we the people” trying form a more perfect union;

To ask when the donor is ready not when the institution most wants the money;

To ask only for projects and purposes that their institution is fully-prepared to implement on budget and on time;

To ensure that donors know exactly when, where and how their money is being used, if it is sole source of funding for a particular purpose or project or if it is to be used in conjunction with other institutional or private funds, and if any existing funds currently used for the stated purpose are to be redirected elsewhere upon receipt of those donors gifts;

To ensure that the institution they represent is accepts the moral weight of asking for, and accepting the support of others, and that it fully understands and is prepared to fulfill its obligations to donors;

To insist on, and help frame specific gift agreements so that the interests and obligations of the donor and the institution can be abided by over time;

To do all they can to bring about a culture of gratitude and accountability within the institution they represent; and

To do all they can to represent the donors’ interest within the institution including making sure donors are notified if any actual or implied promises in the gift agreement cannot be met.

None of them, that I know of, got into the business to raise money for its own sake; they accepted the responsibility of fund raising to make worthwhile things happen. I will be forever proud to call these true professionals my colleagues.


The philanthropic support that an institution receives over time has far more to do with the character it demonstrates than with the way it campaigns for support. For that reason I was deeply impressed by the manner in which Notre Dame in general, and it’s president in particular, responded to the death of a student videographer on October 27. “Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care and we failed to keep him safe,” wrote Reverend John Jenkins. “We at Notre Dame and ultimately I, as president, are responsible.” In a world where too many leaders cite liability as a reason for doing nothing or who throw subordinates under the bus to divert attention from their failings, President Jenkins strength and leadership in the wake of a terrible tragedy is breathtakingly refreshing.


If you would like to take part in, and learn from a survey on how colleges and universities use social media to raise money, please click on the link below.